‘Ah Gong’ of Eunos: Elderly peddler brings a community together in spirit of giving
He earns little, but still gives to others, and even gives his goods away for free to those who can’t afford to pay. It’s this 74-year-old’s gift of community and friendship to his neighbours.
SINGAPORE: In one corner of Eunos Crescent, a 74-year-old man sits every morning, surrounded by his wares. What some see as cast-offs, he has collected and brought them here, to his makeshift stall.
Some people may look at him with disdain. They see him “as a beggar, as a pauper”, says Mr Yeo Siak Eing. They are unaware that he is not just another elderly peddler trying to make a living.
What they do not see are his customers turned friends who also gather items to pass to him. Neither would they see his spirit of giving in action.
Mr Yeo, or Ah Gong (grandfather) as he is known to residents, does not only sell second-hand goods, but also gives them for free to those in need.
He even gives away money, such as to other seniors or migrant workers. “I give to those who are poorer. They can’t work and don’t have enough money. So we can help them a little,” he says.
All he needs is the S$40 a day he can roughly make – and the happy faces of the people that have come to surround him.
Others may see crowds buying his stuff, but the residents and regulars in the area see a community.
“He brings joy by gathering everyone together. There’s warmth in people’s interactions,” says Mdm Xue, a resident and Chinese teacher. “When you see uncle, you’d feel that the day is good.”
NO KEEPING HIM HOME
Mr Yeo has had a three-room flat in Eunos for 30 years, but the bachelor is now staying with two friends in another flat in Tampines.
His own flat is where he stores his goods. And these days, it is so full of the things he has collected that there is no room for him to sleep.
To him, however, every item is just waiting for someone who needs it.
Every day at 4.45am, after his morning exercise, he sets off around the estate in Tampines to see if he can pick up more stuff to sell, or give away.
It is a routine that runs like clockwork. One morning when CNA Insider arrived two minutes late, he had already left.
Age and ill health may have caught up with him over time, but they have not stopped Mr Yeo, who was an odd-job labourer for most of his life, from being active.
“There’s nothing to do at home. When you’re outside, you still can pick up things and chat with others … It’s easy to pass the day,” he says.
Many people, when they’re older, they feel troubled. (But) the more they’re cooped up at home … the more their mind goes blank and becomes depressed.
When he started picking up and selling things a decade ago, it was an occasional activity while he did other odd jobs. After five years, it became a daily affair.
And since then, he has been taking the first bus from Tampines to Eunos every day, a journey that has turned strangers on the bus into recognisable faces for him.
On one of the mornings, while saying goodbye to an alighting passenger, he tells CNA Insider: “There are more, but they’re not here.”
FROM CUSTOMERS TO FRIENDS
Mr Yeo has a knack for making connections, it seems. Retiree Kwek Sui Heng was one of his customers but wanted to do more and now acts as his informal assistant, “sometimes only, not every day, just to kill time”.
The 63-year-old helps him to set up stall by 7am, receive items from others and make the sales. Mr Yeo jokes: “He’s my boss.”
Then there is resident Mohd Amin, who arrives with a number of things he has bought from the peddler: Shoes that sold for S$3, bicycle baskets for S$3 to S$5, and a cycling helmet for S$5.
“I work in the night shift. After work, normally I drop by lah, to see what’s good or new,” he says.
“Sometimes they can reserve something for you. If they think I need (it), they’d reserve it for me until I come down."
Regular customers have become friends, he adds. And when he pays tribute to Mr Yeo, saying “Ah Gong good”, the latter replies light-heartedly, “Ah Gong no good.”
The peddler sells most of his items for S$1 to S$2 to keep them affordable, with many of the buyers being maids and the elderly.
Thanks in part to residents passing him their used stuff, anything from clothes and toys to figurines and paintings might be found at the small space he has made for himself near the Eunos Crescent Market and Food Centre.
Mr Jasin Ng, who lives in Bedok but comes to Eunos for breakfast, even chips in with things he picks up from the rubbish areas of public apartment blocks.
“People tend to discard things that are usable. If I can collect and let him sell, it’ll also help to protect the environment. It’s good for everybody,” says the 62-year-old.
Sometimes, however, what people give to Mr Yeo is too old or in a bad condition, so Mdm Xue, who declined to give her full name, helps to organise the items or throw them away.
“I try my best to help him because he has no more strength,” she says. It is not just about his age. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer and has since had three operations.
He now wears a colostomy bag (for body waste), and says rather stoically: “If you get cancer, it’s like that.”
These days, however, Mdm Xue’s concerns have grown. “I notice his condition is more serious,” she says. “He has slimmed down. He said that he doesn’t have much appetite to eat.”
He goes for check-ups every few months, but was unable to tell CNA Insider his latest prognosis. According to residents, there has been one constant throughout his sickness: His attitude to everyone.
“If you ask him anything, he’s very friendly. He won’t be harsh on you,” says a 63-year-old Mdm Ng.
“That’s why when I see (him have) a lot of things, I’d buy from him. Actually, even if I have no use for it, I’d still buy from him.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
If it is not his goods that they buy, some would bring him food. Whatever the kindness they show, Mr Yeo pays it forward in equal measure by, for example, refusing payment from those who have little to spare.
“Who is poor and who isn’t, we know. There are many people we know,” he says.
(What’s) the most satisfying is to see the poor people who pick up things and smile. That’s true contentment.
Or as he explains to one customer who tried to insist on paying him S$2, “It’s okay. I went through hard times too … My family wasn’t well-to-do.”
When he was in primary school, his elder siblings started working – he had six of them – which changed his family’s financial situation. But he has not forgotten those early years. “I’ve liked the poor since I was young,” he says.
WATCH: Ah Gong and the spirit of giving (7:47)
Sometimes he may not give things away but allow people to owe him for their purchases, like he did for Ms Lyn, a foreign domestic helper who picked out S$47 worth of stuff but asked to pay a week later.
She has known the “kind-hearted” man for about two years, she says. But would he be as open to letting others buy first and pay later?
“If there are one or two bad apples, just take it as charity – just need to let it go,” he says.
Migrant workers have it tough, he thinks, which was why he slipped some money to one of the town council cleaners who was sweeping nearby.
Mr Kwek, who has seen all this before, says: “As easily as money comes, easily it will go. People give to him, so he also gives to others.”
MONEY NO CONCERN
Mr Yeo says it more than once – “money isn’t important” – a statement that might befit one who also says he has marched to a different tune ever since young.
“As long as I’m hard-working, I’m not afraid I don’t have money to (survive),” he says.
“If you stay at home and don’t work, where would you have the money to spend? If you just pick up something, and sell it for a few dollars, then you’d have money to spend already.”
What is most important to him is that he is not dependent on others. “Until my arms and legs can’t move, then I’ll retire,” adds Mr Yeo, who does not keep in contact much with his siblings.
One Eunos resident, who identified himself only as Mr Azeez, hopes the second-hand goods seller can carry on in their neighbourhood for as long as possible.
“I’ve seen many people supporting him. We must respect him for wanting to earn a living at this age,” he says.
Housewife Pat Koh, who gave Mr Yeo some of her bags to sell, thinks he helps to make the market area come alive.
As for the peddler himself, he stresses that he is not asking for charity. And to people might want to help him, he says, “I won’t accept it …. (except to) help those who are even poorer.”
“It’s better for you to help those who are poorer than me.”